Aberdeen native Douglas D. Osheroff named co-recipient of Nobel Prize in Physics on October 9, 1996.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/14/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20464

On October 9, 1996, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces that American scientists Douglas Dean Osheroff (b. 1945), David N. Lee (b. 1931), and Robert C. Richardson (1937-2013) are co-winners of that year's Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize is given for their discovery of superfluidity in the rare isotope helium-3. At the time of the award, Osheroff, who was born and raised in Aberdeen in Grays Harbor County, is a professor and researcher at Stanford University, while Lee and Richardson are affiliated with Cornell University.

"A Wild Childhood"

Douglas Osheroff was born on August 1, 1945, in Aberdeen in Grays Harbor County in Southwest Washington, one of five children. His father, William Osheroff, was a doctor, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His mother, Bessie Anne Osheroff, a nurse, was the daughter of a Lutheran minister, with family roots in Slovakia.

Osheroff was generally a good student in high school, and he excelled in physics and chemistry classes. An abhorrence of blood ensured that he would not follow in his father's profession, but he had intense scientific curiosity that revealed itself at an early age. In a video interview conducted during a gathering of Nobel laureates in Lindau, Germany, in June 2004, Osheroff described "a wild childhood," although not in the sense of rebellion:

"I guess it started at age six when I tore this locomotive for an electric train set that I'd just gotten for Christmas apart to get the electric motor out. My parents didn't scold me, and I think my father was quite fascinated with my fascination ... He was a physician in town, and his patients would give him things to give to me ... like a box of parts from the telephone company, a box of magnets, and stuff like this, and I just found all of this stuff so fascinating ..." ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Interview").

His fascination with science and experimentation increased in his teenage years. In one of his less-successful basement experiments, Osheroff came very close to blinding himself when a glass bottle in which he had mixed water and calcium carbide to produce acetylene gas exploded. He was able to turn his head just in time, but the right side of his face was peppered with glass fragments. He later recalled, "I was old enough to drive, so I drove myself down to my father's office and he sewed up the largest of the cuts ... After that I stopped playing with calcium carbide" ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Interview").

But he did not stop tinkering and experimenting, and his free hours were occupied by various mechanical, chemical, and electrical projects, "culminating in the construction of a 100 keV X-ray machine" during his senior year in high school ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Biographical").

Off to Caltech

Osheroff started as a freshman at Pasadena's California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1963, and he was fortunate enough to be there when famed physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was teaching a two-year undergraduate physics course, giving lectures whose clarity and wit were preserved on film and became widely popular. Those lectures proved very useful to Osheroff's future career: "This two-year sequence was an extremely important part of my education. Although I cannot say that I understood it all, I think it contributed most to the development of my physical intuition" ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Biographical").

In fact, there was a fair amount that Osheroff did not easily understand as an undergraduate, as he later revealed:

"It was a shock to suddenly have to work so hard in my studies. I had the most trouble in math, and only through considerable trauma did I gradually improve my performance from a grade of C+ to A+ over a three-year period. Years later, when Caltech was offering me a faculty position, I confided that I did not have a very illustrious career as an undergraduate ... [T]he division chair replied 'That's OK Doug, we are not hiring you to be an undergraduate'" ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Biographical").

On to Cornell

Osheroff earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Caltech in 1967. He had worked in the institute's low-temperature lab during his senior year, an experience that "filled my mind with the wonders of the low temperature world, and I decided I would go into solid state physics" ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Biographical"). He had several options for graduate school, and chose Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, "largely because it was so far away from the Pasadena smog" ("Douglas D. Osheroff -- Biographical"). It would prove to be a good choice for other reasons as well.

First, while looking for housing, Osheroff met Phyllis Liu, who was also attending Cornell and whom he would marry in August 1970, just weeks after she was awarded her Ph.D. in biochemistry. And in his first year there, he worked as a teaching assistant under David Lee, the head of Cornell's low-temperature laboratory, who would become his thesis adviser, and with Robert Richardson. Osheroff, Lee, and Richardson worked together at Cornell's Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics, where in 1972 they discovered helium-3's superfluidity at extremely low temperatures. They were able to elucidate the underlying physics, an accomplishment that would lead to their sharing of the Nobel Prize nearly 25 years later. In describing the discovery and its importance in terms at least moderately accessible to the general public, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote:

"In samples of liquid helium what is termed superfluidity occurs, a phenomenon that cannot be understood in terms of classical physics. When a liquid becomes superfluid its atoms suddenly lose all their randomness and move in a coordinated manner in each movement. This causes the liquid to lack all inner friction: It can overflow a cup, flow out through very small holes, and exhibits a whole series of other non-classical effects. Fundamental understanding of the properties of such a liquid requires an advanced form of quantum physics, and these very cold liquids are therefore termed quantum liquids" ("A Breakthrough ... ").

As noted, superfluidity cannot be explained by classical physics; it is entirely a quantum phenomenon. While the potential practical uses of the discovery remain largely undetermined, the study of superfluids gives scientists a rare window through which to study quantum effects on a macroscopic scale.

Bell Labs

Osheroff received his master's degree from Cornell in 1969. Three years later, in September 1972, he was putting the final touches on his doctoral dissertation when he and his wife moved to New Jersey. She had taken a post-doctoral appointment at Princeton University and Osheroff, after a rigorous application process, had landed a job at the world-famous Bell Labs in nearby Murray Hill. He would receive his Ph.D. from Cornell the next year.

It was at Bell Labs that the transistor was invented in 1942, and its revolutionary impact on electronics and tremendous financial success had given the private research center a deep appreciation for the commercial potential of basic scientific research. For the next 15 years, Osheroff, equipped with his own laboratory and generously funded, continued his investigations of helium-3 superfluidity and other recondite mysteries of liquid- and solid-state physics. In June 1981 he received a MacArthur Fellows Program "genius grant" for his work, and from 1981 to 1987 he headed Bell's Solid State and Low Temperature Research Department.

Back to Academe

In 1987 Phyllis Liu-Osheroff accepted a job offer from the biotech firm Genentech in California, and the couple decided to move to the West Coast. Osheroff received offers to teach and conduct research from both Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. He chose Stanford, both because it was looking specifically for a low-temperature physicist and because its location near Palo Alto was closer to his wife's job.

At Stanford, Osheroff taught physics and applied physics, served as department chair from 1993 to 1996, and held an endowed chair as the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Physics. In addition to the Nobel Prize and the MacArthur Foundation grant, Osheroff received other prestigious awards, including the Sir Francis Simon Memorial Award (1976), the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize (1981), and, in 1991, Stanford's Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In 2003 Osheroff was appointed to serve on the 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board's independent inquiry into the February 1, 2003, loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew. Osheroff focused on an engineering and technical analysis of crash debris to help determine the accident's cause, and he participated in the preparation of the board's final report, issued in August 2003.

As of 2017 Osheroff was a professor emeritus in Stanford's Department of Physics. Over the years, he developed considerable expertise as a photographer and shared his interest by teaching a freshman seminar entitled "Technical Aspects of Photography." But Osheroff continued to find the most fulfillment in the laboratory, pursuing his lifelong curiosity about how the world works.


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